BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
As the representatives from the National Football League ownership group and the National Football League Players Association continue to try and bridge their differences and sign a new collective bargaining agreement (and yes Green Bay Packers players have collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin despite the best efforts of the state's governor to bust public employee unions as Governor Scott Walker told the fake David Koch), it might be useful to review 60 years of television money and players association activity and how closely linked television and the players really are.
NFL owners were planning to use some $ 4 billion in 2011 television rights fees to underwrite a lockout. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp (FOX), General Election (now Comcast)'s NBC, Summer Redstone's CBS, the Walt Disney Company's ESPN and DirecTV cozied up to the NFL owners because the owners' product is still a consistently watched fare in an increasing fragmented audience industry — TV.
Television is the “tiger blood” of the NFL. CBS, NBC and ABC were the “Goddesses” that brought the NFL to the masses during an explosive growth spurt between 1960 and 1970. Each one of the NFL owners was a “bi-winner.”
NFL owners and NFL players have been battling over issues since 1956. Today, NFL players get huge salaries but have short careers and unlike their counterparts in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, a NFL players contract is not guaranteed. If a player gets fired, he keeps bonus money but he is terminated with just some severance pay. NFL players need four years to get a pension and five years of medical benefits following a career. The lack of will to fight the owners and just take money now has left some former players financially destitute and in some case contemplating suicide from injuries suffered on the field from Pop Warner through junior high school, high school, college and pro football.
As television contracts got bigger and bigger, so did players salaries but NFLPA negotiators never looked at the future.
In 1950, the three most popular sports in the United States were baseball, boxing and horse racing. National Football league owners were running mom and pop store operations that operated from July to December. Television, as the noted writer Frank Deford explained on a long forgotten TV show that featured this writer and Al Michaels (along with the "Scud Stud" Arthur Kent) on Histories Mysteries, an all inconclusive look at sports history in about 88 minutes on the History Channel in 2000, changed the sports world. By 1965, football was the most popular sport in the United States. The owners had more money than they ever could imagine but the owners still treated players like they did in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
The NFL owners and players had a contentious relationship for decades. The NFLPA formed in 1956 with help from Creighton Miller, the first General Manager of the Cleveland Browns. Unhappy players in Cleveland and Green Bay assembled a network of "player reps" on each team. The players included Don Shula (Colts), Frank Gifford (Giants), and Norm Van Brocklin (Rams) to represent their teams. The Chicago Bears did not have a players representative. The players first meeting was held in New York in the fall of 1956, after the owners ignored the players' attempts to discuss their requests. The players asked for minimum salaries of $5,000 per season, injury pay, uniform per diems, and for teams to supply their own equipment.
Nothing happened but the players got a big break in 1957 when, the first lawsuit involving professional football and antitrust was filed, Radovich v. NFL, which significantly altered player rights within the league. The case involved a player/coach, George Radovich, who sued the league because the NFL effectively prevented him from attaining employment in the NFL or affiliated leagues, such as the Pacific Coast League, which was in existence at the time. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the NFL was exempted from the antitrust laws, and was appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the trial court, holding professional football subject to the antitrust laws.
The Supreme Court of the United States decision changed life for NFL owners. The players could now sue the league on antitrust grounds which they threatened to do. The owners and players settled with the players receiving minimum salaries of $5,000, $50 payment for preseason games, medical coverage for injuries, and a pension.
But the players didn't get what they agreed to and spend the 1958 season chasing the owners to live up to the agreement. The deal was finally signed in 1959.
In 2011, as a fallback, the players will decertify their association and then sue the league on antitrust grounds if an agreement isn't reached soon. Nothing much has changed since 1957.
The truth was that football was a part time vocation and not a real job for either the owners of the players in the 1950s.
When the season ended in the 1950s, so did football as a main vocation. New York fans may have wildly cheered the New York Giants defensive lineman Andy Robustelli on six Sundays a season, but on the Monday after the final game, it was back to work in the civilian world.
"Each player the day that the season was over, you were free and you looked for a job. You wouldn't see each other until next year. I think, and with all respect to the modern ballplayer, I hope the modern ballplayer appreciates, not only the opportunity, but...football is a stepping stone it's not the end of life," said Robustelli , who became a successful businessman in Connecticut once his Giant days were through, in the 1990s.